On a bright fall afternoon in Manhattan, Richard Gere takes a break from promoting his latest film, Shall We Dance?—in which he plays a man who finds new passion and purpose in life when he learns to waltz (from Jennifer Lopez no less)—to ponder the deeper meaning of his own life. At 55, the actor, who became an icon playing irresistible seducers in American Gigolo and Pretty Woman and won a Golden Globe in 2003 for his role as the tap-dancing con artist Billy Flynn in the hit movie musical Chicago, doesn't have to do anything to preserve his place in history. But he feels a greater calling, a universal responsibility to end suffering in the world.
"A few years ago I said, 'Look, I have so many years left, maybe, to accomplish something of value,' " says Gere, moving lithely across the room to pour himself a cup of tea. With his plush gray hair, wire-rim glasses, and beatific smile, Gere has matured into a silver fox, with none of the sullenness that defined him as a young star. "I thought to my- self, 'Let me focus on a few big things and see if we can do something there.' "
That revelation led to the creation in 2002 of Gere's public charity, Healing the Divide, an organization dedicated to helping communities in Asia, the Middle East, and the United States tackle some of their most pressing social and cultural challenges. Among the charity's early initiatives: an HIV/AIDS-awareness project aimed at stopping the spread of AIDS in India, a health-care plan for destitute Tibetan monks and nuns, and the development of a culturally sensitive curriculum for high school students in India. Next year, Gere also hopes to bring together leaders in the criminal-justice field to talk about prison reform in the United States.
The respect that Gere is now getting as an effective international force for change has been surprisingly slow in coming. Despite his long-standing devotion to Buddhism and his 25-year friendship with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, Gere has only recently been able to shake his image as a narcissistic pretty boy.
"In the early days, there was a fair amount of skepticism that someone in Hollywood could actually be a serious activist," says musician Philip Glass, who cofounded, with Gere, New York's Tibet House, dedicated to preserving Tibetan art, culture, and philosophy. "But from the beginning he brought his energy, his heart and mind, his intelligence—he brought everything to it. And he was capable of inspiring other people."
Gere credits his father, Homer, with instilling in him the desire to make the world a little bit better for the next guy. "My father was, and is, this extraordinary, very gregarious man, an insurance agent in a small town in upstate New York," Gere recalls. "But to him, it was much more than a job. I think he genuinely felt that he was insuring the well-being of his neighbors. He'd get calls in the middle of the night and he'd go off…. As a kid, I didn't understand it. I just knew that my father was gone a lot. And I was kind of jealous of the fact that he was on call to the rest of the world. But as I grow older, I see that that laid seeds in me that express themselves now."